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Tanks, troops, and patriotic fervor swept through Moscow’s legendary Red Square Friday as Russia marked the anniversary of the end of World War II, a traditional celebration whose emotional resonance has been amplified this year by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin then capped the sense of triumph in Moscow with a visit to Sevastopol, Russia's newly annexed Crimean port.
Two days before pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine have vowed to stage a referendum on the future status of the region, President Putin used the military parade as an occasion to recall the historic defeat of Nazi Germany, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. But his nationally televised remarks skirted the tense situation in Ukraine.
“This is the holiday when the invincible power of patriotism triumphs,” Mr. Putin said, reports The New York Times. “When we all feel especially acutely what it means to be loyal to our homeland and how important it is to defend our country’s interests.
“We must remain worthy of our forebears’ deeds. They fought to the death with the enemy, defending their native land, and they vanquished Nazism,” he said. “The Soviet people’s iron will, fearlessness and steadfast courage saved Europe from enslavement.”
The only mention of Ukraine in Putin’s speech came in two oblique references. One was to the Dneiper River, which cuts diagonally across Ukraine and flows past the capital, Kiev. The other was mention of Sevastopol, the Crimean port for the Russian Black Sea Navy. Russia annexed Crimea in March after a stealth military incursion and a referendum whose results were ignored by the rest of the world.
About 11,000 military personnel, along with dozens of heavy tanks, armored personnel carriers, and strategic nuclear missile launchers, rumbled across Red Square’s cobblestones, in front of the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Lenin’s tomb, which is typically hidden from view by the viewing pavilion for spectators.
Sevastopol, meanwhile, was also scheduled to hold a larger-than-normal anniversary parade, not surprising in light of Putin unannounced but triumphant visit to the city, his first visit since the annexation.
In Kiev, the embattled government opted to hold more modest ceremonies to observe the 69th anniversary of the war’s end, according to CNN.
After months of mounting tensions, the Ukrainian crisis exploded in February when violent protests culminated in Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country. Moscow has repeatedly accused the interim government of being beholden to “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “extremists” seeking to repress ethnic Russians.
Moscow used the ouster as a pretext to wrest Crimea from Ukraine, using special forces and local paramilitary allies to help oversee a disputed referendum on March 16 that resulted in the peninsula’s annexation.
Putin has also staged thousands of active military troops on Russia's southwestern border, as pro-Russian fighters have seized dozens of government buildings in towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.
The insurgents, who claim the new government in Kiev aims to discriminate against ethnic Russians, have called for holding a referendum on Sunday to determine the region’s status. A vote for secession from Ukraine might give Moscow a pretext for sending troops across the border.
Putin earlier this week called on the insurgents to delay holding the vote, a move that appeared to back the interim government's plans for a national election in late May, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The Associated Press, however, reports that preparations have been haphazard, with ballots mainly being printed on a photocopier in the regional government building seized weeks ago in the city of Donetsk.
AP also reported that a poll by the US-based Pew Research center released on Thursday found that 70 percent of the residents of Ukraine’s east want Ukraine to maintain its current borders. “That suggests the referenda have a chance of failing, if opponents turn out in force and the count is honest,” the agency reported.
Lilia Shevtsova, a respected Moscow analyst, argued that the Ukraine crisis is an example of the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster Putin’s popularity “based on a permanent search for internal and external enemies,” she wrote in an op-ed Thursday in The Washington Post:
“The dismemberment of Ukraine also exposes the mechanism of the Russian matrix, in which foreign policy is the main instrument of domestic agenda. Those worrying only about Russian imperialism are wrong: Land-grabbing and ‘defending’ the Russian-speaking population in other countries are the means to turn Russia into a state at war, making Putin a wartime president and strengthening his position at home.”